Little Fugitive / Morris Engel, Ruth Orkin & Ray Ashley / 1953 / fourstar

Active Ingredients: Documentary-like photography; Naturalism; Childhood perspective
Side Effects: Early scripted scenes

[Little Fugitive is playing in a restored 35mm print at Boston’s MFA from March 6th to March 10th.]

A huge influence on François Truffaut and other French New Wave filmmakers, Little Fugitive is a simple and poignant look at childhood joy and childhood confusion. Co-directors Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin were both New York based photographers, and they deftly take their eye for small-scale social life and drama to the cinema with this film. Using lightweight, handheld 35mm cameras, Engel captures with neo-realist authenticity the ups and downs of a 7-year-old boy’s day spent alone at Coney Island. The film won the top prize at Venice Film Festival, and has lost none of its immediacy and power since.

When his pestering of his older brother results in a cruel prank, little Joey runs away to Coney Island with nothing but six dollars in his pocket. He spends his day riding the carousel at the amusement park, devouring watermelons and weaving in between sleeping beachgoers to collect Pepsi bottles for their deposit. Like the great Italian neo-realist films of Roberto Rossellini, or indeed the French New Wave classics that Little Fugitive inspired, this film largely jettisons scripted plot and focuses instead on capturing small moments of truth regarding both childhood and the exciting environment of Coney Island.

Partially filmed with a concealed camera, the visual aesthetic of Little Fugitive is closer to documentary—or better, non-narrative city symphony—than to the classic narrative cinema of post-war America. Despite some stagey early scenes with the cruel friends of Joey’s older brother which serve to set up the story, the most transcendent moments of the film are subtle and powerfully real glimpses of the architecture, people, and feeling of New York in the early 1950s. At its best, Little Fugitive‘s images are devoid of characters and full of people.

The film is also valuable for its sensitive portrait of childhood. It’s no surprise that Truffaut took inspiration from Little Fugitive to create The 400 Blows. By letting their young subject simply explore and react to the world around him, by freeing him from the obligation to “act,” the co-directors chart great emotions across his face, from his elation on the carnival rides to anxiety of the big world around him to unexplained confusion and sadness. Like the cowboys that Joey idolizes, he is independent and strong, but he also harbors a piercing melancholy.